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Building a platform to change the world: Interview with Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist, Downforce Technologies

Jun-23-2023

Downforce Technologies’ Co-Founder and Chief Scientist, Professor Jacqueline McGlade, is one of the world’s leading authorities on how data can be used to understand natural capital and used to build an equitable and sustainable future.

During the course of her career she has spearheaded environmental science programmes at the highest level, serving as Chief Scientist of the UN Environment Programme and Executive Director of the European Environment Agency.

Awarded the UN Global Citizen Award in 2013, the citation reads that Jacqueline has a “fervent belief in the value of collecting and integrating environmental information at local, national and global levels, and her drive in creating the means to share that information with the global community, especially citizens, means our planet has a better chance of surviving the environmental challenges ahead.” With this belief and Jacqueline’s experience instrumental to Downforce’s offering, she answered three key questions which underscore why the proposition is so important, and so timely.

Why did you decide to found Downforce Technologies?

Upon leaving the UN, one of Downforce’s first investors asked what I would invent if I was given funding to change the world - for me there was a clear answer. Having dedicated my career to bringing evidence about the real-world into the design of policies and actions, I saw that we could do so much more in solving the world’s most critical challenges by deploying at scale and speed the publicly available data that was already at our fingertips.

Over the past 40 years, I saw that nature-based solutions could solve many of the problems created by climate change. And during the time I spent at the UN, the interconnections between nature and human survival became embedded in international commitments. But there was still a misplaced assumption that nature would fix the problems of climate so that we could carry on with business as usual without any need for accelerated action or investment. My own conclusion was that we needed to act quickly if we were to get the planet back on track - we neither had the time or the luxury to collect vast amounts of more data. Instead I saw that by coupling the data we already had with advanced and innovative analytics, we could build information systems that would help us make better choices about those nature-based solutions most likely to succeed. We would also be able to accurately measure and monitor the impacts of different interventions on local scales and provide valuable insights about their efficiency and efficacy for improving ecosystem health and prosperity.

Living with the Maasai in Kenya, I also saw firsthand how such an approach could provide affordable, and ethical solutions for safeguarding livelihoods. This is especially crucial given the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic which caused tourist revenues to be more or less eliminated. By making best use of the type of the approach I was proposing, I could see how to develop ethical and effective nature-based climate projects that would help communities such as mine in Kenya, benefit from the growing market for carbon and biodiversity credits. With the market for climate credits predicted to be worth upward of $50 billion by 2030, such a solution could help lift generations out of poverty, while simultaneously helping global progression towards Net-Zero goals. But to work it would mean harnessing the best science, assimilating all the relevant and freely available data, unlocking the knowledge held by communities and project proponents and building a system that was both ethically acceptable and operationally effective. This is why I founded Downforce Technologies.

How did your experience shape Downforce?

The ability to interpret and apply data to solve problems at scale has been fundamental to every role I’ve held.

As part of my PhD in aquatic sciences and zoology, I examined the critical importance of spatial dynamics in determining the evolutionary divergence and ecological sustainability of freshwater and marine fish populations. I then spent 20 years working on spatial analytics with some of the world’s leading mathematicians and scientists, uncovering ways to detect and monitor changes at fine to global scales in a wide array of species and ecosystems and from the polar regions to the arid interiors of our continents. This ability to understand the complexity of the living world on both a granular and global level is foundational to what Downforce offers.

Having been involved in developing different geospatial sensors and satellite technologies, I also knew how much data was already being made available by the national and international agencies - but also its limitations. My own experience had taught me that to accurately understand the complexity of our living planet, we needed to couple these data with local measurements to understand the context and causality of change.. At Downforce, we use different data fusion and analytical techniques to build new functional classifications of the land wherever we are working. This approach lets us accurately model how the local variability of natural capital at 10m x 10m resolution has changed over the past six years and what might happen in the near future.

Why is natural capital core to Downforce’s offering? Natural capital allows us to account for the flows of carbon and other elements through all the world’s ecosystems in support of the ecosystem services that we all rely on. While I was Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, I took the opportunity to push for the introduction of natural capital accounting into the national system of accounts and continued this work whileIs at the UN. Governments agreed to its inclusion in 2021. Which is why the natural capital accounting framework is a central to Downforce’s work.

Why is now such an important time to launch Downforce Technologies?

With the climate crisis at the forefront of the global agenda, governments and businesses are rightly looking at how they can reduce emissions and progress towards sustainability goals. Environmental, Social and Governance investing and reporting is therefore becoming increasingly important for large businesses, with a growing emphasis on reducing scope 3 emissions. However, despite positive intentions, measuring the impact of carbon offsetting has at best been challenging, and at worst, beset by false claims and scandals on the part of offsetting providers. Downforce has thus taken the view that it is vital for organisations and land stewards to establish an accurate carbon baseline to be able to prove whether their interventions and long-term strategies are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or enhance removals along entire supply chains.

In the wake of allegations against some of the most well-known project developers, it has become crucial for companies and governments to have measurements they can trust. At Downforce, we’re focused on demonstrating outcomes and letting the science speak for itself. With our outcomes-based analytics we can clearly show the impacts and potential of different land management practices on carbon sequestration and because we can measure and monitor soil health from local up to continental levels, we are able to fully assess soil degradation and develop soil restoration strategies.

The race to Net-Zero is just one of the areas where Downforce’s analytics can make a difference.. Another is addressing the challenge of food insecurity and hunger. One-in-10 people worldwide suffer from hunger, while nearly one-in-three people lack regular access to food. To address this challenge, the UN is seeking to double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers by 2030, while simultaneously ensuring “sustainable food production systems”. This is dependent on the implementation of “resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.” By providing farmers and land stewards with a highly accurate - and cost-efficient - means of assessing natural capital, Downforce makes it possible to implement sustainable farming practices designed to increase productivity and production, and ultimately help to deliver on this objective. Communities, in particular those in impoverished regions, are already benefiting from Downforce’s data by using them to gain access to new revenue streams and financing opportunities.

At Downforce, we aim to give businesses, land stewards and governments the information they need to make the right decisions in the right place and thus safeguard our planet, our livelihoods and our future.

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“This is incredibly exciting and potentially a game changer. If we can combine this technology with what we are discovering with our farmers through our soil health initiative we will be able to tailor our land use plans, monitor our progress, and deliver on our pathway to net zero.”
Matthew Morris, Land Steward for the Duchy of Cornwall